On the mountain, all was still. The Shining Rock Wilderness stretched for miles around them, the Blue Ridge Parkway a tiny snake in the grass, the occasional cars that passed by ants crawling along the snake’s back, winding its way down through the Pisgah Forest. Monika Chadha hugged her knees to her chest and sighed, slow and content, observing the blanket of stars twinkling at her from the heavens, the same as always. She leaned her head on Liam’s shoulder, closing her eyes as he whispered stories about the Ancient Greeks and their personal constellations.
“The gods played favorites, right? They picked their heroes and that, immortalized ‘em in the stars,” Liam’s Manchester accent floated into her ear like a favored blanket, warm and cozy and feeling like home.
“It’s romantic, isn’t it?” Monika smiled, whispering so as not to wake their fellow campers. “But what did Orion do?”
“Dunno,” Liam said after a moment’s consideration. “He’s got a nice belt, though.”
“What’re them tacky things—not diamonds, y’know, but them shiny-like things people used to wear on denim jackets and that?”
“Rhinestones?” Monika asked.
“Rhinestones, yeah,” Liam said, laughing at his own joke before making it. “Orion had a rhinestone belt.”
Monika shook her head, laughing silently.
“You know, I used to think he was an Irish fella,” Liam said. “O’Ryan, like, with an apostrophe.”
The fire died down in front of them, the last of the marshmallows long since eaten. Liam massaged Monika’s shoulders and kissed her atop the head before going into their tent for the night. She told him she would stay out a little longer, eager to enjoy the silence and solitude in her lifelong happy place. When she was a little girl, she and her father would make the journey from their home in Brevard, North Carolina, then just a quiet mountain town, now a veritable tourist trap. Then, she had been young, nimble, full of fantasies about the world. Life had seemed magical, the universe nothing but a vast expanse of possibility and joy. Her father, her rock, had been tall and strong, all-powerful and all-knowing.
The Pisgah Forest was only a mile from her home, and all its secrets whispered in the trees and the dirt paths, carried through the frigid currents of the Davidson River, all of it, she thought, belonged to her. Monika always felt a particular pull from the celestial map in the sky. On family camping trips, she, a handful of cousins, her father, and one or two of his siblings, would hike up to the Black Balsam balds, pitch their tents, and lie on the mountaintop, examining the sky. She tried to see all the pictures her father pointed out, Orion and the dippers, Hercules in the summer, an occasional planet.
Fear, danger, uncertainty—these things never entered her young mind. The forest was a comforting place, her home, a warm hug after a hard day. Then her cousin, Jade, went for a walk in the woods and never came home. She twisted her ankle, fell, and was too far down to get herself out, and too far out to call for help. She was twenty-two years old. Monika, at the time, had been eighteen. Following Jade’s death, Monika avoided the forest for months, and she never again ventured out on her own. Her heart and soul belonged to the woods, though, and she would never be able to abandon them.
After college, she moved to Washington, DC, which she figured was much more dangerous than walking through any forest. A lover of structure and rules, Monika worked hard and landed a job as an ethics attorney. Her job and a lack of opportunity, more than anything, kept her away from her beloved forest. She jogged in the morning, but it was no match for the wilderness. Car horns, crowded sidewalks, and stoplights prevented her from feeling the complete serenity that folded over her in the mountains. Nostalgia for hiking led her to sign up for a three-day hike in the Shenandoah Valley. During that trip she met Liam McKenzie. He was attractive, with black hair, blue eyes, and a northern British accent, but he never did shut up, which gave the taciturn Monika more than a little pause. Later, at their wedding, she would tell the story about the long van ride from DC to the Virginia mountains, how Liam talked the entire time, and how she spent the entire trip wishing she had brought headphones along.
Now, three years later, she chuckled to herself in recollection of their first meeting. They decided to lead a hiking group in Monika’s beloved Appalachian Mountains. In addition to the two of them, seven hikers ventured along. Monika and Liam worked well together, Liam offering friendship and entertainment while Monika offered structure and preparation.
When morning broke, the group set off on that day’s five-mile hike to the next campground.
“Will you clear the cobwebs for us this time, love?” Liam asked, smiling as he adjusted his Manchester United cap atop his head.
“Sure thing,” Monika said. She took her position at the front of the group and led the way, with Liam taking the rear, telling the group about the many antics of his and Monika’s dog, Kali, an Irish Setter/Golden Retriever mix.
“Kali’s the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, essentially,” Liam said. “Quite fitting, innit, love?”
“Indeed,” Monika laughed.
Two miles down the trail, the silence of the wood struck her. Beyond the snapping of twigs and crunching of leaves beneath her feet, the call of birds and rustle of squirrels in the trees, there was hardly a sound. She turned around and saw four of the hikers following her.
“Let’s stop,” she said. The four acquiesced and searched for water bottles and snacks in their packs. Monika tilted her chin in the air and furrowed her brow, eyes scanning trail as she strained to hear human voices—namely, Liam’s voice.
“When did any of you last see the others?” Monika asked, keeping her tone calm so as not to raise alarm.
“Not too long ago,” one of the hikers, a girl in her twenties, piped up, unhelpfully. Seeing Monika’s disappointment, the girl continued, “one of the guys was having trouble with his pack. I think they stopped to help fix him up. That was still up on the rocks, at that false summit.”
Monika nodded. She considered leaving the three hikers to find the others, but quickly discarded that idea. That would be not only highly irresponsible on her part, but also foolish. Everyone on this trip was an accomplished hiker. Liam most of all. He was probably fine, just taking his time, smelling the roses, as it were.
“Right. We’ll just rest here until they catch up,” Monika said. She dropped her backpack on a flat rock and sat down, clearing her throat and reaching for her water bottle. “Next time, though,” she said after taking a sip of water, “tell me if anyone stops. We shouldn’t leave anyone behind. Once they’ve gone out of eyesight, we’ve gone too far.”
“I thought they had started back again,” the same girl said, looking down at the ground.
“It’s fine,” Monika said, knowing full well that she was more irritated with herself than anyone else. She was a trip leader, after all; she should have paid more attention. Any moment now, she told herself, the hikers would approach. She would hear Liam’s voice before anything else. He would be telling a joke or singing a song, or maybe his hearty, boyish cackle would ring through the serene forest, bringing a smile to Monika’s lips as it always did.
An hour passed, and Monika tried not to express her worry. Finally, one of their group came running down the path, emerging suddenly around the bend in the trail.
He dropped to his knees in the mud, panting with exhaustion.
“Caleb? What’s the matter?” Monika asked, the relief she felt at finally seeing one of their group overshadowed by fright. Noticing that he didn’t have his backpack with him, Monika handed him her own water bottle, which he accepted with breathless thanks. Once Caleb had hydrated himself and regained control of his breath, he explained,
“A little ways back, Bryce had to pee, so he went off the trail to, you know, take care of business. It took a really long time, though. Like, a really long time. At first, we were sort of laughing about it, saying he must’ve eaten too much, or whatever. But then we called out and didn’t get any response. So Liam and Sophie went off to look for him, and—and, I dunno, man. They’re just gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” Monika asked. Caleb shrugged helplessly.
“I called after them, but nothing. I went down as far as I dared, but I couldn’t see anything,” Caleb said.
“Did you hear anything at all? Rustling bushes, anything that might have sounded like a cry or a gasp or—”
“No. Nothing,” Caleb said. His shoulders sagged as he dropped his gaze to the dirt. “I would’ve gone after them, but considering they all, you know, vanished—”
“No, you did the right thing,” Monika said. She glanced up at the sky, taking note of the sun creeping away from the center, headed toward the horizon. Everyone looked to her for a decision. Usually eager to take charge, she wished now that someone else were there. Her father would know what to do.
Dad, if you’re out there, show me the way.
“Okay. Do you know where you were, precisely?” Monika asked. Caleb nodded, and hope came into his eyes at the thought that he might still be helpful.
“Yes,” he said, “I stuck my poles in the ground where we were.”
“Perfect. Good thinking. Okay, here’s the plan,” Monika clapped her hands together and turned to address her group, all seated on rocks, expressions a mixture of exhaustion, concern, and fright.
“Caleb and Maria, come with me. You three,” Monika nodded at the three remaining hikers, “stay here. If it gets dark, go ahead. About a mile straight ahead, there’s a clearing near a creek, that’s where you’ll set up camp. You can’t miss it. Understand?”
The hikers nodded. Monika continued,
“Do not, under any circumstances, separate. Do not let anyone out of your sight. Here,” Monika reached into her pack, pulled out the keys to the van, and handed them to one of the hikers, who looked at her with anxiety.
“Don’t worry,” Monika said. “It’s only a precaution. I don’t anticipate you’ll need to use them, but if we’re not back come morning—and that’s very unlikely, but we need to be prepared—if we aren’t back, hike to the parking lot and find help. At least one of you should turn your phone off and leave it off until you get back.”
“Mine’s been off this whole time; I’ll keep it that way,” one of the hikers, Ian, volunteered. Monika thanked him, then headed down the trail with Caleb and Maria. The trail was heavily lined with vegetation; it would be hard to tell if there was a drop off the side. Her mind filled with thoughts of her cousin, Jade, gone now twelve years. She imagined Jade lying at the bottom of a ravine with a twisted ankle, alone and frightened until she succumbed to nature. A shiver ran down Monika’s spine and she reminded herself that Liam and the hikers with him were not alone and, at least, they had people looking for them.
Storm clouds gathered overhead, thunder surrounding them in the deafening way it did in the wilderness. By the time the hikers reached Caleb’s sticks in the mud, the storm descended, flooding the trail and drenching the hikers, who sought brief respite beneath a canopy of trees to the side of the trail. They donned rain jackets before resuming their search. In between calling the hikers’ names, Monika blew on the whistle that hung around her neck. Liam had one too, she knew, and they always planned to communicate this way in an emergency.
“See, there’s a little path here,” Caleb said, pointing to a footpath that veered away from the main trail, down the side of the mountain. “I took it as far as I could, but I didn’t want to go any farther.”
Monika took the second of Caleb’s hiking sticks and whacked at the bushes and trees lining the trail, trying to see through them. Caleb followed suit, and Maria stood back, watching helplessly. Monika tapped at the edge of the trail with the stick, trying to feel whether the ground vanished nearby.
“Guys?” Maria called. “I see something.”
Monika and Caleb hurried to her side and followed her gaze to the edge of the trail where they saw Liam’s cap, caught on a tree limb jutting out from the trail. Monika shouted her husband’s name, with Caleb and Maria following suit. All three of them went silent, straining against the heavy rain in the hopes of hearing something, but only the hiss of rain against the trees answered.
“How did you not see them fall? Or hear them?” Monika turned to Caleb, who couldn’t find a reply.
“Blame won’t do any good,” Maria said, noncommittally. Monika told them to stay there and ventured down the footpath at the edge of the mountain.
“Is that a good idea?” Caleb asked.
“We have to do something!” Monika snapped. Regaining her composure, she apologized and promised not to go far. The footpath took a steep downward turn, twisting briefly through a wooded area before leading to a rock jutting out into the open. Steadying her breath, she crouched down. Forcing herself to focus on logic and to ignore the personal crisis at hand, she calculated the possibilities. On either side of the rock, a straight drop disappeared into the trees far below. Anyone in search of a makeshift bathroom certainly wouldn’t venture down to the rock sticking out into the air. Although far removed from civilization, it would no doubt feel too exposed. More likely, Bryce walked to where Monika crouched now—heavily wooded, she couldn’t see the main trail, but she could hear Maria and Caleb talking. The footpath was steep, making it possible that Bryce lost his footing, perhaps, and fell.
Monika grabbed a tree trunk to steady herself. The forest was dizzyingly far below. It was almost certain that anyone who fell would not survive. The rain let up as unexpectedly as it had come down. The sun reappeared, birds sang around them, and the slick rock down below glistened.
“I’ll just be one more minute!” Monika called over her shoulder. Caleb and Maria acknowledged they heard her, and she sat in the dirt, crawling slowly down to the rock, heart pounding wildly. When she reached the rock, she steadied her boots on its surface, careful of how slippery it was. Monika bit her lip to keep from crying out. She peered over the edge of the rock as best she could without losing her balance. Liam and the other hikers were out there somewhere. As clear as it was, Monika refused to accept the likely truth that they had not “disappeared” but had all, rather, fallen to their deaths. It was too impossible to think about while there was nothing she could do. Slowly, carefully, she turned around to climb back up the trail when an orange string caught her eye. Liam’s whistle, broken in the mud.
“Oh, God,” Monika whispered, as though this solidified her worst fear. If he was all right somewhere out there, he had no way of communicating that fact. “Baby,” Monika faltered, hanging her head and biting her lip, attempting to keep tears at bay. She collected herself on the reminder that there was still work to be done. There were five frightened campers under her charge, looking to her for direction. The sun was sinking below the mountains, painting the sky with strokes of pink and orange, the hazy mountains looking blue in the distance.
The first twenty-four hours in a search for missing hikers are crucial, Monika thought as she glanced at her watch, but they were miles deep in the forest. The sky would lighten again by 5:30 in the morning. If they could pack up and haul out at that time, there might still be time to get help. Monika crawled back up to the trail.
“Any luck?” Caleb asked. Monika only shook her head. If she tried to speak she would only cry, so she simply adjusted her backpack and led the way to the campsite, where the other hikers had dutifully arrived and set up.
The group sat around the fire as Monika explained the plan to leave at first light. After dinner, the hikers dropped into their tents one by one, until Monika was the last awake. She knew she wouldn’t sleep that night. She would spend the entire night battling her desire to run down the trail and search for Liam and the others. She glanced up at the sky—brilliant and clear after the storm had passed, that never-changing map of stars twinkled at her. In them she saw her youth, her father, her cousin, the first camping trip she took with Liam, and the last. She saw him lying in his hammock, a sleepy smile on his face, arms around her as they studied the constellations, speaking of the Greeks and their heroes. Monika imagined the stars that would create her own constellation. Her father, her cousin, maybe Liam, but she was not yet ready to commit that best and brightest of stars in her life to the sky above.
“I will find you, Liam,” Monika whispered into the night. Crickets chirped and owls hooted in response, and the sky reminded her of her frailty in the face of nature’s dominance.